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The punishing legacy of the surrender
(This is the third and final instalment of a backgrounder series on the 2005 BC election campaign entitled “Surrender to the right wing frame.” In the first instalment, we explored how the Liberals had stigmatized the NDP’s economic record in government, quite contrary to the facts. In the second we went into the role that right-wing media power played in generating and reinforcing this stigmatization and the NDP’s failure to fight back. Most telling was new NDP leader Carol James’ retreat on the Liberals’ notorious 2001 tax cut favouring high income individuals.)

Carol James' decision not to call for the revocation of the Liberals’ prejudicial tax cut wasn’t her only surrender to the right-wing media “frame.” She also didn’t challenge the bum rap that had been pinned on the Harcourt and Clark governments – the NDP’s allegedly having destroyed BC’s economy, the hoked up scandals that weren’t, the supposedly oppressive taxes that weren’t oppressive at all, and the media’s role in propagating myth. The frame that remained was that, while it was a good idea to have a strong opposition – I have a staunchly right-wing friend who, astonishingly, gave money to the NDP after the 2001 election for that very reason – one would not, definitely would not, want another NDP government. This silence also meant as well that one could not talk about the NDP’s many accomplishments in government. James would not even do what some maverick commentators like radio personality Rafe Mair were prepared to do – shoot down the knee-jerk myth about how terribly bad the NDP governments were and actually defend them.

Now, one understands the calculation in the 2005 election battle – fight the campaign against the Liberals’ broken promises and Gordon Campbell’s meanness and hypocrisy, in short, on the matter of trust. This is undoubtedly what the party’s polling and focus groups indicated: The Liberals and Gordon Campbell personally had become unpopular enough that one should concentrate on that. Articulating the accomplishments of the earlier NDP government would detract attention from this thrust and also open a messy can of worms. It would mean as well taking on the earlier anti-NDP frame that had been imposed by the media – a difficult task, especially given that in the 2001 campaign, the party, under Ujjal Dosanjh, had already given way to it.

The NDP’s strategy, instead, was the very contrary – to distance the party as much as possible from the record of the NDP in government, especially from Glen Clark. This went as far as James’ indicating her own unhappiness with the past NDP and pointing to the differences. One of her approaches was to portray the “new” NDP as the party of inclusiveness and consultation, as different from the 1995 Clark election theme of us versus them. The strategy was executed with great skill, and James performed well. A large number of MLAs were elected. The NDP’s popular vote was even higher than it had been with either Harcourt or Clark.

There was another calculation to be made, however – that the vote for the right-wing coalition has, without exception since the 1930s, always been greater than the vote for the left-wing coalition in BC politics, and that unless the NDP somehow turned a piece of that right-wing vote to the NDP, the party would go down to defeat. This was all the more important given that the Green Party would take away at least a bit of the NDP’s electoral potential. Blandishments about inclusiveness, consensus, consultation and moderation wouldn’t do the trick. The right-wing majority was based on deeply rooted perceptions about management of the economy and what makes an economy tick. One needed to address these core perceptions to become government. One might as well do so, moreover, since the NDP’s recovery of its traditional left-wing vote was bound to happen anyway. It had already been indicated by the polls. Where else could that traditional NDP vote go?

The NDP surrendered on this one, too, and inevitably suffered electorally because of it. Worse was the underlying political shift that occurred in the process. The right-wing media frame about the economy and how it works was allowed to sink its fangs even deeper into the British Columbia psyche.

The retreat on the Liberals’ tax cut, for example, reinforced the idea that the economy depends on indulging a small percentage of wealthy people and outside investors – a fanciful notion, to say the least, but one that was the ostensible premise for the tax cut being made in the first place. It also discounted the role of the public sector as an economic engine – far more productive than indiscriminate tax cuts. Similarly, failure to hit the Liberals for their prattle about having inherited a ruined economy not only gave away an opportunity for political theatre but also added to the impression that only right-wingers know about economics.

More serious: The NDP’s adaptation tactics – adapting to the right-wing media frame about the economy – meant there was no alternative perspective to that frame, and the Liberals’ right-wing majority would remain unshaken despite Gordon Campbell’s negative image.

There were several themes that the NDP could have, and should have, developed on this key matter, leading up to the election and during the campaign itself. These were themes, moreover, that could be developed without being bogged down in details about the previous NDP governments. The first was that “the economy is us” – everyone participating in the economy with their energy, training, experience and creativity. In a world flooded with capital looking for a place to go, such energy and creativity attracts capital. Not only that, but the most important element in modern economies by far, going back 150 years, has nothing to do with investors. It’s universal public education including, now, post-secondary education, and education is an NDP strong point.

In other words, change the frame – describe the economy in a different, more realistic, way that, because it’s more realistic, challenges the perspective espoused by the BC Liberal Party and its media backers, and gets people thinking.

Another important theme, this one left untouched altogether, was the loss by British Columbians of ownership of their entrepreneurial base. Without that ownership one always risks becoming an economic satellite, with all the economic loss and entrepreneurial marginalization this involves, although the traditional economy in BC is protected by the fact that its trees, water, natural gas, base metals and natural beauty (for the tourism industry) are part of the province’s geography. Not so for the newer economy or the service side of the old economy. Even corporate functionaries have admitted, wryly, that there are hardly any head offices of large corporations left in BC, except for....oh, my! corporations. Parts of those corporations have now been dismantled or sold off by the Liberals. Privatization doesn’t just move enterprises that were owned in common into private hands. More often than not, for BC, it ends up moving such ownership into outside hands, with the loss of downstream entrepreneurial scope that comes with losing control.

At the same time, the much-touted high-tech industry in the province is being bought up piece-meal by large outside corporations, mostly American, who pay premium prices for the companies but capture the future. Among other things, the sell-outs work to defeat possible “cluster effects” that depend on regionally rooted owners and employees talking to each other and moving upwards within their region rather than reporting to distant head offices. This pattern of sell-outs doesn’t need to happen. There are ways of retaining home-based regional ownership when the founding owners of young companies want to cash in. There’s even a pre-existing investment model for the purpose, the Caisse de depot in Quebec.

The Liberals were wide open for attack on these issues and also politically vulnerable to such an attack, for business and economics were the only planks left for them in the election. Moreover, the political threshold for the NDP on these issues, was a low one. The party didn’t need to convert all the die-hard right-wingers in the province, just create some doubt among the public at large of the Liberals’ pretensions on business matters. It was a wonderful political opportunity for the NDP.

There was another, quite profound reason for taking up this matter of enterprise and ownership: The NDP would have been appealing to British Columbians’ pride and creativity and their sense of themselves as people living together in a region with something in common. Within this perspective, voting NDP would be a natural. This is in counter-distinction to the Liberals’ dogma, where behind the blustering and crowing, they see British Columbians as second rate, with their economic future lying in selling out to larger, outside, preferably multinational companies and to cultivating the interest of such outside companies by abjectly coddling them with tax cuts.

The apotheosis of the NDP surrender was the aforementioned appearance by James before the Board of Trade in Vancouver, where she assured the gathering that, as premier, she would be consulting the business community and not just labour. That, in itself, wasn’t the failure. She should speak, and continue to speak, to the Board of Trade and should hear the views of business cliques and business lobbies, even if their claims to represent “business” in general are false. Her failure was in not challenging their self-serving notions about themselves as business leaders. She in effect was saying, “Yes, you represent business, and not only that, you’re the ones who know everything about it. By inference, too, the political party that you finance, namely the Liberals, also knows everything about it.”

This meant in turn that when the Business Council of BC and its recruits and an ad hoc hi-tech lobby group came out in favour of the Liberals during the election campaign, as could be expected, and warned the public of dire consequences if they voted NDP, they did so with unchallenged credibility – a credibility reinforced by James’ approach itself. All she could do at that point was to diplomatically scold them for their “them and us” politics.

Inevitably, because of all this, James did not adequately move the numbers and the Liberals were re-elected. At the same time, the right-wing media’s framing of business and the economy remained intact – indeed, was strengthened. This foreshadows, in turn, the Liberals’ staying in power for much longer than two terms, in the same way that their predecessors, Social Credit, were in power for the better part of 20 years despite a strong CCF-NDP contingent opposing them in the Legislature.

Finally was the ultimate surrender, one implicit in James’ posture as a “moderate,” as different from Glen Clark who, supposedly, was a radical. Forget for a moment whether this was an accurate premise about Clark whose style as premier wasn’t radicalism at all but spontaneity, partisanship, and a little bit of populist fight. What did James' portrayal of herself as a moderate really mean?

“Moderate” is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder’s eye, in a mass-media world, sees the world through a prism moulded by media power. James’ insistence on herself as a moderate, in the context of the election campaign, was really an insistence that she had largely accepted the right-wing frame, although that frame might, in fact, be quite radical and twisted.

Let’s go back one last time to James’ promise of “no new taxes” and of not revoking the Liberals’ tax cut. Would revoking the tax cut and lowering medical plan premiums have been an immoderate, radical act? For that matter, would adding new taxes have been radical?

There are some jurisdictions where aggregate taxes and public spending are much higher than in British Columbia, most particularly the Scandinavian countries. Government outlays as a percentage of GDP for those countries range from 47 per cent (Norway) to 57 per cent (Sweden), as of 2004 OECD figures. Most other western European countries, like France, Germany and Belgium, are in the same range. Canada is only 39 per cent, or 18 per cent behind Sweden. Measured by tax revenue, exclusive of non-tax receipts, the gap is much the same, with Canada approximately 17 per cent behind Sweden and 15 per cent behind Denmark. For BC alone, whose taxes are lower than the Canadian average, this gap would be even greater. Yet far from thinking of Scandinavian countries as radical and irresponsible, social democrats and many others in British Columbia are great admirers of the region and see those countries as careful, moderate and balanced. It’s in good part because of their higher tax levels that they have done the things which make them admirable. James, however, in trying to establish her “moderate” credentials, not only went in the opposite direction, but bent over backwards doing so. Rather than challenging the right-wing media frame of what a “moderate” would really be, she lent herself to their twisted frame instead.

And then there was the root evasion behind all this: not raising as a public issue concentration of ownership of the mass media in the province and how this works against British Columbians and the common good.

So there we have it: surrender and, inevitably because of it, given British Columbia’s political culture, coming in second. The media, led by right-wing CanWest, were delighted – delighted that James conformed to their idea of moderation, delighted that she had done so well in re-establishing a strong opposition because the previous situation had been too far out of whack to be respectable, and delighted that she had lost. The result, for them, was the best of all possible worlds, and they crowed about how extraordinarily wise British Columbians had been, as if 1,764,000 British Columbians, voting in different ways for different reasons, could be collectively wise. They felt at home with the result most of all because, underneath the news reports and the analysis, the frame that they work within and articulate had been moved to the right and was more entrenched than ever. Then again, because of the way the NDP campaigned, it would have been just as entrenched had the NDP won.

Return to Part 1 - The Hidden Question of the 2005 Election
Return to Part 2 - A Traumatized and Weak-willed NDP Doesn't Fight Back

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